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Lesson 2.10

Student Voice:
What is the Role of the Student in Education Leadership?

Students can lead from a different perspective.

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Students generally don't have much say in their education. It doesn't have to be that way.

Public education is an enormous system. The content of education is powerfully defined by grade-level standards and enforced by standardized tests. The rules that govern big decisions in schools and school systems can and do change… but often at a pace that students find frustrating or impenetrable.

This lesson explores some of the ways that school systems can meaningfully incorporate student voice in the operation and change management of schools and school systems.

What is Student Voice?

At its best, student voice connotes genuine student influence based on feedback intentionally sought, especially in matters of importance.

This doesn't happen automatically. In many schools and school systems, students have no meaningful input at all. It's difficult to continuously develop effective processes, organizations and relationships that develop student leaders. Leadership is partly about relationships, and students need help to forge connections with faculty or government leaders. Student leaders who overcome these barriers grow up and move on.

What is Student Government?

Student government is a classic "sandbox" for students to develop leadership skills and experience. In many schools it is a small sandbox, with few expectations or opportunities, little or no faculty support, and no money to work with.

Under California’s Education Code, student governments in public schools may raise money and, with oversight, decide how to spend it. These school-based student leadership groups are often called Associated Student Body organizations, or ASBs. Students involved in these organizations have opportunities to develop a variety of skills, including fundraising, planning, budgeting, and communication.

ASB funds, where they exist, are often used to provide equipment for activities and school-wide events such as dances, rallies, or performances. Well-run ASBs prepare a budget detailing planned fundraisers, how much the fundraisers will cost to execute, and plans for what to do if there is either a surplus or shortfall. After the budget is approved by the students, an advisor, and the student council, the school district’s business office must also approve it.

Formally, there are two types of ASBs: unorganized and organized. In unorganized ASBs, students don’t formally govern, especially when it comes to matters of money. Students are usually involved in fundraising, but the school administration typically oversees funds.

In rare cases, some well-funded student councils take the step of becoming organized ASBs, which are non-profit entities independent from their school district. Subject to their by-laws, the students directly make the decisions here, including planning, fundraising, and spending. Adult supervision is provided through school administration, club advisor(s), and someone designated as the ASB bookkeeper, who assists and co-approves decisions.

How are students involved in PTAs and PTOs?

Parent organizations (PTAs, if affiliated with the state PTA, otherwise PTOs) are associated with schools or groups of schools. Most PTA organizations that serve high school grades designate themselves as PTSAs, adding the letter S to reflect that their bylaws include some kind of formal leadership role for students. The details can vary a lot. Students in California PTA-affiliated organizations are eligible to hold any leadership office.

How can students improve their own schools?

Students have a lot to say about their schools. Some schools and districts collect information about student perceptions and experiences using the California Healthy Kids Survey. The results can provide insights into how different groups of young people see their school experiences.

Confident teachers and school leaders take time to solicit open-ended feedback from students. Rare schools, with care and seriousness, involve students in work that they are uniquely qualified to do: evaluating teachers to help them improve. As Ed100 Lesson 3.9 explains, some states require student feedback as an element of teacher evaluations. California is not among them.

How are students involved in school site councils?

In the Ed100 blog
How do schoool site councils work?

The easiest way for students to play an official role in the education system is to serve on the school site council, a committee of teachers, parents, students, and school staff. Generally, the site council works with the school principal or other designated administrator to support of the operation and improvement of the school. Specific responsibilities vary depending on how the principal uses the group.

Meetings, commonly held each month, must be announced at least 72 hours in advance in a way that allows anyone to attend. In many high schools, the site council is the best-kept secret for ambitious 9th-graders who want to advance quickly to positions of responsibility. Elections for school site councils are typically held at the beginning or end of the school year, which creates challenges for orderly succession planning.

What is the Seal of Civic Engagement?

In the Ed100 blog
What is the Seal of Civic Engagement?

There are limitless ways for students to demonstrate leadership and make a difference. California was the first state to officially recognize students for their contributions with a Seal of Civic Engagement on their high school diploma. In this post on the Ed100 blog, Hana Fujita explains the program, including a useful video from Dr. Marika Manos, who oversaw administration of the the Seal in Orange County. The seal is a state program, but it requires an active contact in each school.

How can students lead in school districts?

California school boards in districts with high school students are required to include a student member… but only if high school students petition for it.

As explained in Ed100 Lesson 7.3, school districts hold a great deal of power in California's education system. Since 2018, California law has required school districts to include a student member on their board, if petitioned by a modest number of high school students. The bill that led to this change passed with little opposition, but in many school districts, such a petition still has not been completed. (How many? No one knows!)

You can learn more about the process on Ed100, including where to find sample wording for a petition to add a student representative.

Student members of school district boards in California serve in an advisory capacity — they can influence board decisions and speak in meetings but cannot cast a binding vote. Some school districts record student preferential votes in their minutes, but most school boards don’t even list their student members on their web page. State law requires public transparency about the identity of voting school board members, but does not mention student members. During the pandemic, some students who serve on school boards in California began connecting with one another through the California Student Board Members Association (CSBMA), a student-led organization that provides training and support. As of 2023, the organization was apparently defunct — a good example of the difficulty of sustaining student organizations!

Can students vote?

In the Ed100 blog
Learning to vote

In California, students can pre-register at age 16 to vote when they turn 18. This program has helped boost youth turnout in elections, but California youth participation in elections is low, generally in line with most other states. There are many ways for students to get involved in the democratic process, even before they can vote. See our blog post about it.

How can students influence change in California's schools statewide?

California has several established mechanisms for students to be heard in state-level education policy settings. The California Association of Student Councils, a student-led youth leadership organization, organizes conferences and programs that prepare students to present proposals to lawmakers and to the State Board of Education. The most important are the SABE and SABLE conferences.

Another student-run organization for student advocacy is GENup, which involves students through a network of local student-led chapters. ACLU of Southern California involves students through a selective program.

The California State Board of Education includes a voting student member appointed by the Governor.

At the state level, California incorporates student voice in a rare and authentic way: One seat on the State Board of Education is reserved for a student member. The student position was created in 1969. In 1983 it became a full voting position, in every respect equal to the other members of the board. The only other states with voting student members on their state board of education are Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland. Eleven other state education boards list student advisors on their webpage, some of them inconsistently.

How can students lead beyond the education system?

Technology has eliminated many barriers that used to keep students out of "grown up" meetings, which has made it possible for students to organize beyond their own school community and beyond education as an issue of concern. For example, youth leader Greta Thunberg has inspired students spanning the globe to find their voice in advocating for changes in climate policy.

How has Ed100 supported student leadership?

In the Ed100 blog
Remembering the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders

During the Pandemic years of 2020, 2021 and 2022, Ed100 organized a virtual summer conference involving hundreds of student leaders from all over California. In 2023, we transitioned the program to Children Now as the Summit for Student Leaders.

This post was last updated October 2023.


Are California school boards required to include a student representative?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 8, 2023 at 7:53 am
Updated 2023 national overview of student representation — see Education Next.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 10:22 pm
I've also seen student's in our district become more vocal through organizations such as Diversify Our Narratives. I'm also very excited to see what actions and impact will come out of the State Seal of Civic Engagement.
user avatar Madrigal March 28, 2022 at 11:17 am
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 29, 2021 at 10:29 am
In June 2021 the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that schools have little authority to limit student speech when it can be argued that the speech takes place outside the school. The ruling (and the dissent) would make excellent fodder for school assignments. See EdSource summary.
user avatar
Mateo Meza June 28, 2021 at 10:12 pm
I’m a firm believer in the idea that we students should have a lot more of a voice in education. At the end of the day, only the students can say whether something is working or not; we actually experience it.
user avatar
Mo Kashmiri July 11, 2020 at 11:43 am
Do any districts have a voting student member on the school board?
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 11, 2020 at 11:21 pm
Yes, with limits. In California, students can easily require their district to include a student representative on the board -- just circulate a petition. The specific voting rights of the student rep depend on the content of the petition and the content of the board policy passed in response. In California law the student rep's vote is "preferential" -- not counted, but possibly recorded. Read the post "can students serve on school boards" for more. (Linked above.)
user avatar
afrinier February 16, 2020 at 12:03 pm
I am proud of Glendale Unified School District. We have been having ongoing Special Board of Education meetings consisting of a panel of students assembled from our 5 high schools to dialogue about a variety of education topics with the Board of Education in a public forum. Keep it up GUSD! This is a valuable activity for our students and for our representatives on the Board!
user avatar
Caryn February 18, 2020 at 10:37 am
Thanks for sharing! This is great news and a terrific example of real engagement happening at GUSD. Be sure to pass your feedback on to your district leaders--I'm sure they will appreciate hearing your perspective.
user avatar
Claudia Knoell December 23, 2019 at 8:22 am
I’d love to learn how to encourage student participation. I have middle schoolers, but the interest isn’t there yet.
user avatar
Caryn February 18, 2020 at 10:33 am
Hi Claudia, thanks for your comment. This is a great question and I hope our readers will chime in. I think a good place to begin is by helping your children recognize they play an important role in their education. This may spark an interest in how decisions impacting their learning are made. You could also bring them along to your next BOE or PTA meeting and give them the chance to interact and ask questions about things that are important to them, even if they might seem somewhat insignificant (e.g. cafeteria complaints or inadequate PE equipment). Also, encouraging them to participate in ASB or other leadership opportunities at school can help them gain the skills and confidence to participate in future advocacy roles. Finally, sharing small bites of what you've learned from Ed100 may help entice them to play an active role in student leadership opportunities available in your district.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm
The Student Voices Campaign
The Student Voices Campaign provides a creative way for young people to make their voices heard in their local school district.
Launched by the California Alliance for Arts Education, the campaign invites students in grades 7-12 to create videos that share their vision for better schools and their education and share them with school district leaders as part of the annual Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) planning process between November 10, 2015 and April 1, 2016.
Find out more:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm
Michael McFarland, the 2015-16 student member of the California State Board of Education, interviewed by Ed100's Carol Kocivar on KALW: Each year about 200 students apply for the one-year position. Michael is from Palos Verdes, CA.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 11, 2015 at 10:32 am
What happens when students are asked to make decisions about a school's budget? Students at Overfelt High School in San Jose were given control over $50,000. What did they do with it? (Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this one to read the conversation...)
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm
Californians for Justice studied methods of seeking student feedback at four high schools in 2015. Findings and recommendations are contained in a Very Large online report here:
user avatar
ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:46 pm
Our district has her stay the whole meeting - we love her being there. She also comes to PTA board meetings to hear what we are doing
user avatar
shadowzwench April 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm
Our school district does have high school student representatives on the school board, but they are usually dismissed from the meetings early which is unfortunate. Our middle school SSC does have two student representatives. They ask some great questions.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 3, 2015 at 9:47 pm
I see very little youth voice in my community. I would love to have students participating on our LCAP Advisory Committee.
user avatar
norburypta March 17, 2015 at 9:30 pm
Many middle and high school's PTAs are formed as PTSAs (the 'S' is for 'Student'), giving roles for the students to fill in the policy making of the association.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 17, 2015 at 10:31 pm
Each year, a high school student is selected to serve as a member of the California State Board of Education. The application for the position is available here:
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:31 am
"Students have a lot to say about their schools. When confident teachers and school leaders take time to ask students for their feedback or advice, they generally find it enlightening. "
Students should be encouraged and asked to participate in school decisions. Student councils are not for everyone ,but just like band or choir or drama - the option should be available for them to speak out. Even if their friends aren't a part of the council, they most likely give their opinions to those who are. It's no different from how I am not a senator but still tell him/her how I feel they should vote.
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm
You should include some quotes form Charles Taylor Kerchner about students being the real workers in education.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 1, 2014 at 10:53 pm
Agreed. Here's a piece he wrote a few years ago for PACE: I also extend on this theme in a "compare and contrast" piece here on Ed100: /schools-are-like-businesses/
user avatar
Arati N June 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm
We have student council leaders participate in school site council meetings at the middle school. They bring student perspective to programs and take information back from the meeting to the students. Great messengers of information flow.
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